The Coconut Creek police officer who apprehended Parkland school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz was not ordered to leave the school’s staging area to search for him — but decided to take matters into his own hands.
Officer Michael Leonard gave his first in-depth interview since the February 14 mass shooting to the Sun-Sentinel this weekend, revealing previously unreported details on how he was able to capture 19-year-old Cruz, about an hour an a half after the suspect opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, killing 17 people.
Leonard is a 17-year-old veteran of the Coconut Springs Police Department, and reportedly also worked for the Coral Springs Police Department in the past. Both of those departments responded to the scene of the high school shooting, providing aid to the Broward County Sheriff Department.
Leonard, who had reported to the school that Wednesday afternoon, told the Sun Sentinel that he was at a police staging area when he opted to search for Cruz on his own even though he wasn’t directed to. He also had only a vague description of the suspect at the time.
“He was on foot, so I knew he couldn’t be far,” Leonard, 46, told the Sun Sentinel.
“I wasn’t useful there. There was no senior personnel there to direct me or tell me what to do. I decided to head out on my own, alone.”
Leanord told the newspaper that the residential streets were blocked with vehicle traffic, so he drove off-road in an attempt to track down the suspect.
“I drove through grass. I drove over medians and curbs,” Leonard said.
“That was really the only way to get around.”
While he was driving through the neighborhood, Leonard spotted a young man wearing a maroon polo shirt, black jeans and a baseball hat — the description of the shooting suspect — walking along a residential road a few miles from the school.
“For some reason, I was just led to that area. I don’t know why,” Leonard said. “It was just me and him on that quiet road. We were all alone, just me and him.”
The officer told the newspaper that he believed he stunned the suspect when he approached him from behind, and that Cruz didn’t resist.
“It probably was overwhelming to him,” Leonard said. “I just flooded him with commands. I told him to turn around, and he looked me right in the eye, looking down the barrel of my gun.”
The officer told the newspaper that Cruz appeared eerily calm, but said he would not disclose in detail anything that was said, as it could compromise the investigation. The two were alone together for longer than expected, as it took Leonard three minutes to get a radio call through about the capture, due to clogged radio traffic.
The officer said that during that time, he remained laser-focused on the suspect, and had no idea that a bystander was videotaping the capture.
“I was just locked on him,” Leonard said. “Nothing around me mattered. I guess I experienced tunnel vision.”
As CrimeOnline previously reported, the Broward County Sheriff’s office has come under scrutiny for what appear to be some missteps in the response, including a sheriff’s deputy assigned as a School Resource Officer who remained outside of the school building as the massacre was going on. And members of the Coral Springs Police Department reportedly claimed that when they arrived at the scene, three more Broward County Sheriff’s Deputies were standing next to their squad cars outside of the shooting site.
The SRO, Scot Peterson, resigned and retired after authorities launched and investigation into his response.
Leonard’s bravery has stood out among the reports of slow police responses and multiple apparent law enforcement failures in the months and years leading up to the shooting, as Cruz showed repeated warning signs of potential violence.
Still, Leonard said he’s not sure if he can accurately be called a hero.
“I’m trying to figure out if I can accept that title,” Leonard said. “I’m not really a spotlight kind of guy. But I’m proud that I stopped him. Somebody had to stop him.”
[Feature image: Associated Press]